Niagara Gazette

Local News

March 31, 2013

Tonawanda Coke plant suits to take a civil turn

Niagara Gazette — With news of Thursday’s landmark verdict against Tonawanda Coke Corp. still sinking in, questions remain as to what will happen regarding multiple civil lawsuits against the company.

The charges carry a maximum combined penalty up to 75 years in prison for the plant’s environmental control officer Mark Kamholz, and fines in excess of $200 million, all of which might be altered at sentencing July 15. 

Jackie James-Creedon, founder of the Clean Air Coalition and who now conducts air and soil testing in the town, is currently helping to oversee a one such civil case naming some 200 residents in the vicinity of the plant. Other, similar cases are also pending.

Attorney Richard Abbott, a lawyer practicing in the Town of Tonawanda but who has no connection to the case, said the burden of proof in such civil cases is less than in criminal cases like the one concluded this week. Subsequent civil cases require only a preponderance of evidence as opposed to reasonable doubt.

In other words, in addition to the potential weight the recent criminal verdict may have on pending civil cases, jurors must only agree that evidence in civil trials proves the company “more likely than not” is guilty.

”There probably are certain findings in federal court that may be binding against Tonawanda Coke in the civil cases. I would think the civil plaintiff’s lawyers would be ecstatic with this,” he said of Thursday’s verdict.

However, Abbott, in offering a purely general impression of the proceedings, said issues of causation and other elements are open to argument.

”To prove that someone got cancer, for example, because they live in an area with extremely high levels of benzene will still have to be litigated,” he said.

While the money will be collected by the government, little is yet known about what exactly will be done with the fines, in whatever amount, or if they will be paid out and to whom.

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